‘Brave’: Grrrrl power

June 18, 2012

It’s noteworthy that Disney/Pixar’s “Brave,” opening Friday (6/22/12), is the first Pixar feature – and the first Disney animated feature in a while – to focus on a heroine, rather than a hero. And not a heroine whose fate is somehow bound up with romance – that’s a crucial distinction.

Even more noteworthy: “Brave” shows Pixar has its groove back, after the deadly misfire of “Cars 2.”

With a trio of directors and a quartet of writers, “Brave” creates its own mythology: a Scottish kingdom in the days of swords and spells, ruled by the raucous King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and his prim (and strong-willed) queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Fergus has riotously red hair, an obviously dominant trait that has carried over to his children: a trio of mischievous male triplets, as well as their older sister, Merida (Kelly Macdonald).

Merida is the focus of the story: a willful, adventurous young woman who is athletic and outspoken. She loves riding and is an ace archer. (This is, by my count, the third movie this year built totally or partially around a character for whom archery is a key skill. Trend alert!)

But her mother is a traditionalist – and she informs Merida that the time has come to marry her off. There are four clans that rule Scotland in peace – and the leaders of the other three will be bringing their first-born sons to Fergus’ castle to let her choose between them.

Merida is having none of it. Given a choice of competitions in which to have her suitors vie for her hand, she picks archery – then outdoes all three of them, as a way of saying she would just as soon be independent. But her mother refuses to budge.

So Merida goes off to the woods to blow off steam – and is led by magical sprites called wisps to a remote cabin behind a Stonehenge-like site. There, she meets a wood-carving witch (Julie Walters) with a thing for bears, from whom she extracts a spell to help her change her fate. The spell takes the form of a pastry, which will fulfill Merida’s wish once her mother eats it.

But the spell, in fact, turns Elinor herself into a bear (creatures for which Fergus harbors as great an enmity as Stephen Colbert does). Too late, Merida also discovers that, unless she does something to mend the breach between her and her mother within two days, Elinor will remain a bear and lose all trace of her humanity.

“Brave” features strong vocal performances by Macdonald and Thompson, as battling parent and child. The film isn’t just about glorifying female heroism; it’s a mother-daughter story, a clash of generations that builds to an exciting climax full of tension and emotion. Pixar has always been able to shift gears like that, from comedy into action, from action into suspense.

“Brave” is amazing to look at. Watching its blend of imaginatively cartoonish humans and brilliantly photo-realistic settings, it’s hard to remember that “Toy Story,” the first computer-animated feature, came out less than 20 years ago. In the intervening decades, we’ve come to take this sort of eye-popping beauty for granted.

But, as important as the visuals are, the bottom line – the starting point – is the comedy. Without that, these films could be the work of any studio. What’s always distinguished the Pixar films – aside from their continually ground-breaking animation – is their sense of story and their sense of humor.

Pixar films are always genuinely funny – perhaps even more for adults than for children, who are enthralled by the images and story and amused by the slapstick. “Brave” fills the bill, creating a unique world full of colorful and witty characters, all swirling around the grounded and fierce women in the story.

The trio of Merida’s brothers provide wild humor, but there’s just as much with the various clan chiefs (voiced by Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd and Robbie Coltrane) and their sons. Leading the way, of course, is the always marvelous Billy Connolly, as the king who is fearless in battle and cowed by his queen.

Take the kids to “Brave” (though children under 5 may get nightmares from the vicious bear that serves as the film’s villain). But stay and watch it yourself; you’ll have a great time.

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